California

What’s a “Watson advisement” in a Los Angeles “DUI Causing Death” Case?

December 13, 2021 by Sheena Townsend in California  DUI  
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Overview

Negligent driving in and of itself is a dangerous proposition. Involve alcohol and there is bound to be an unfortunate incident.

The tragic injury or loss of life that often occurs under these circumstances is the reason behind the California Legislature’s harsh stance towards driving under the influence, especially for a DUI causing death.

There are several California offenses a driver may be charged with if he or she has taken the life of another while driving under the influence, but the most common are gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, both codified under California Penal Code Section 191.5.

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

California penal law describes gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated as the unlawful killing of another while driving under the influence, without premeditation or malice aforethought. These cases tend to include vehicular collisions in which a driver or passenger of a car hit by a driver under the influence succumbs to injuries caused by the crash.

Penal Code Section 191.5(a) is the provision which governs the charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in California. Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a serious felony that can result in an extensive prison sentence.

Penal Code Section 191.5(a) reads:

(a) Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle…and the killing was either the proximate result of the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, and with gross negligence, or the proximate result of the commission of a lawful act that might produce death, in an unlawful manner, and with gross negligence.

Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is one of the most consequential drunk driving offenses an individual can be charged with. It is a felony charge that can carry several years in prison, and it implies the driver knew that he or she was putting lives at risk with their behavior. However, Penal Code Section 191.5(a) is also a difficult charge to prove and there are significant ways to counter it.

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

This is a lesser charge than gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and thus the punishment is also lower. Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the killing of a human being while driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The killing must be either the proximate result of the commission of an unlawful act, or a lawful act committed with simple negligence.

Penal Code Section 191.5(b), which governs this offense, reads:

(b) Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle…and the killing was either the proximate result of the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, but without gross negligence, or the proximate result of the commission of a lawful act that might produce death, in an unlawful manner, but without gross negligence.

Sentencing/Punishment

The sentencing and/or punishment designated for a driving under the influence offense that results in a fatality can be quite severe.

As opposed to other vehicular manslaughter “wobbler” offenses that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony (depending on the individual circumstances of the particular case), gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is invariably charged as a felony and provides the most serious criminal ramifications. If a driver is convicted under Penal Code Section 191.5(a), he or she can face sentencing of up to four, six or ten years in prison.

Once convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, discretion is held with the court in determining punishment dependent on the particulars of the case. A judge has various options at the time of sentencing, including:

  • Imposition of a four, six or ten year prison term;
  • Imposition of an additional three to six year sentence if any surviving victim sustains great bodily injury;
  • Imposition of a sentence of 15 years to life if the defendant received a previous Penal Code Section 191.5 conviction or two prior driving under the influence (DUI) convictions;
  • Imposition of a sentence of up to one year in county jail accompanied by a period of probation; or
  • Imposition of a general term of probation with associated programs (such as community service, work release and/or substance abuse classes).

Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, as a lesser offense, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, 2 years or 4 years. However, as with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, if the driver has been convicted of a prior DUI offense, the sentence could be increased to 15 years to life.

Note: under California Penal Code Section 1192.7, both gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated are considered “serious” felonies that can add to a strike on a defendant’s criminal record. Therefore, if a defendant has been convicted of a second felony strike offense, his or her sentence will be doubled in accordance with California’s three strikes law. If he or she is convicted of a third felony strike offense, the sentence is a mandatory minimum of 25 years to life in prison. Furthermore, since these offenses are considered serious in California, when a defendant is sentenced to prison under Penal Code Section 191.5(a), he or she is required to serve at least 85% of the prescribed sentence before meeting eligibility to be released on parole.

Watson Advisement

A “Watson advisement” is a formal statement a defendant is most often required to sign following a conviction for driving under the influence. It requires a defendant to acknowledge that driving under the influence has the potential to kill or harm others. The advisement can thereafter be used against the defendant in a subsequent DUI arrest.

In People v. Watson, 30 Cal.3d 290 (1981), the California Supreme Court ruled that there exists malice in driving under the influence where “the conduct in question can be characterized as a wanton disregard for life, and the facts demonstrate a subjective awareness of the risk created.”

Therefore, once a defendant has been convicted of a previous DUI, has been advised of the dangers of driving under the influence, and still drives under the influence, he or she runs the risk of being charged with a “Watson murder” and serving 25 years to life.

Penal Code Section 191.5(e) reads:

(e) This section shall not be construed as prohibiting or precluding a charge of murder under Section 188 upon facts exhibiting wantonness and a conscious disregard for life to support a finding of implied malice, or upon facts showing malice consistent with the holding of the California Supreme Court in People v. Watson, 30 Cal. 3d 290.

Prosecuting

To be convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the prosecution must prove:

  • The defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
  • The defendant committed an unlawful act or an otherwise lawful act that might cause death;
  • The defendant acted with gross negligence; and
  • The defendant’s grossly negligent conduct caused the death of another.

The prosecution has the burden of proving that the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent in order to gain a conviction of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

Gross negligence is more than simple carelessness or mistake. Rather, it is conduct that rises to the level of recklessness that creates a substantial risk of death or great bodily injury. It must be conduct that is such a far deviation from ordinary behavior, that a reasonable person would not act the same in a similar situation. This standard of conduct is what distinguishes gross vehicular manslaughter from other vehicular manslaughter offenses that require the lower standard of ordinary negligence for a conviction.

To be convicted of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the prosecution must prove:

  • The defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and the killing of another occurred; and
  • The killing was the proximate result of the commission of an unlawful act (not amounting to a felony), but without gross negligence on the part of the defendant; or
  • The killing was the proximate result of the commission of a lawful act that might produce death (in an unlawful manner), but without gross negligence on the part of the defendant.

The main components the prosecution must establish are whether an accused was under the influence of drugs or alcohol while driving the vehicle, and whether the accused acted with gross negligence for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, or if the accused acted with simple negligence for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

It is also worth acknowledging that although a defendant can be convicted of either gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or driving under the influence (DUI), a defendant cannot be convicted of both as the two offenses “merge” into one offense.

Defending

If the district attorney is unable to prove any of the elements noted above, a conviction will not stand. A venerable crime defense attorney can defend an accused defendant under these circumstances and can work to show that either the act was committed without gross or simple negligence, or that the defendant’s conduct was not the act which caused the fatality (i.e., if another person involved in the car accident also violated the law or acted carelessly in some way, contributing to the death).

There are a number of defenses to a Penal Code Section 191.5 charge that can be raised. A skilled attorney can argue that the defendant was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, that his or her conduct was not negligent and/or that the actions taken were not the cause of death.

Moreover, if there is insufficient evidence of impairment or intoxication, or if the collision was caused by natural causes, another vehicle or another person, then the defendant would have a strong defense against the charge.

End – Hire Us

Working with a skilled attorney will help your case tremendously. The ideal attorney can research and apply the right defenses to your particular case.

Being accused of a crime involving driving under the influence can lead to serious consequences for those convicted. Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated are felony-level offenses that are not only punishable by significant incarceration time, but can also result in court fines, restitution to the victim’s family, license revocation, in addition to other extraneous court and/or administrative sanctions.

A sentence and/or punishment for driving while intoxicated can be grave and certainly life changing. You need to contact an experienced California defense attorney who will carefully review your case and provide the best representation possible based on the facts of your specific set of circumstances.

If you or someone you know has been accused of driving while intoxicated, it is critical that you meet with an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Need a Criminal Defense Attorney? CALL NOW: 310-274-6529

Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Criminal Defense Attorney who has over 20 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.

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